Ross's Gull
Ross's Gull, from Bird Observations, Japan

Poems by Princess Nukata
& Other Japanese Women Poets from the Man'yoshu & Kojiki
INTRODUCTION from "The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan"
(edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, Seabury Press, NY, 1977)

"The Man'yoshu (The Collection of 10,000 Leaves) was compiled in the later half of the 8th century, Japan. A little more than one-third of the (named) Man'yoshu poets can be recognized as women ... The script known as Manyigama was probably employed largely as a mnemonic device and the poems were transmitted orally, usually sung or chanted as they still are to this day...with 4,516 poems in all....

"The remarkable thing about the Man'yoshu is its extraordinary democracy. There are poems by emperors and empresses, princes and princesses, generals and lonely common soldiers on the then narrow frontiers of Japan, beggars, monks, and courtesans. A whole section was devoted to "Eastland Poems," probably in a different dialect from an area which was in those days the Eastern border of Imperial Japan and is still relatively backward country...

"In the early Heian (794-1192) period, a lingering social memory survived from the days when the Yamato invaders of central Honshu, the main island, were often ruled by queens who were also shamanesses, and when the family economic structure and clan relationships were dominated by women. In fact, Japan...was in its beginnings probably the nearest thing to that matriarchy sought so fervently at the beginning of history throughout the world..."

Black-Crowned Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Goi-sagi),
Birds of Tokushima by Fumiaki Shibaori

POEMS BY NUKATA (b. Ca. 638 - active until 690's)
from "A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem Glistening Cup"
translations and quoted notes by Edwin A. Cranston
(Stanford University Press, 1993)

"Princess Nukata, one of the finest poets in the first part of the Man'yoshu, lived in the turbulent time of the establishment of the Imperial Clan as the rulers of Japan. She, like Sappho, is half legendary, but is considered to have been a divine messenger, an oracle or shamaness, and a public poet. Her greatness lies in her ability to combine in universal terms the expression of personal passion and powerful collective emotion -- and in the extraordinary beauty of her sonorous poetry, which would seem to show a long period of conscious aesthetic development from the pre-literate poetry gathered in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki."


According to Edwin Cranston, poems written by royalty about thatched huts, signal the "nascent pastoralism" soon to become a dominant mode of appreciating nature and the lives of simpler people among the Nara (710) aristocracy . In fact, as Cranston points out, Japanese royalty lived in unpretentious thatched buildings until about 600.

In the autumn fields
We cut grasses for the thatch,
And we lodged the night:
How my thoughts go back again
To our palace-hut at Uji!


In regard to the incoming tide, "scholars have calculated the date and moment of high tide as 2:00 A.M., on the twenty-third of the first month by the lunar calendar."

At Nikitatsu
We have waited for the moon
Before boarding our boat;
Now the tide is in at last --
Come, let's get to rowing!


"When the Emperor commanded the Palace Minister, Fujiwara no Asomi, to match the radiance of the myriad blossoms of the spring mountains against the colors of the thousand leaves of the autumn mountains, Princess Nukata decided the question with this poem."

When spring comes forth
That lay in hiding all the winter through,
The birds that did not sing
Come back and sing to us once more;
The flowers that did not bloom
Have blossomed everywhere again.
Yet so rife the hills
We cannot make our way to pick,
And so deep the grass
We cannot pluck the flowers to see.
But when on autumn hills
We gaze upon the leaves of trees,
It is the yellow ones
We pluck and marvel for sheer joy,
And the ones still green,
Sighing, leave upon the boughs --

Those are the ones I hate to lose.
For me, it is the autumn hills.


"The route out of Yamato goes north past Mount Miwa (homophonous with miwa, "offertory wine") and over the Nara Mountain, which did not yet look down on the imperial city later built nearby. Mount Miwa was the site of an ancient Shinto cult, and thus a particularly sacred spot."

O sweet-wine
Miwa Mountain
Until blue-earth
Nara Mountain's mountain crest
Should come between
And you be hidden in behind,
Until road-bendings
Should pile back upon themselves,
To the very end
I would have kept you:

O my mountain,
What right
Have heartless clouds to cover you?


Do you dare to hide
Miwa Mountain in this way?
At least you, O clouds,

Should have greater heart than that:
What right have you to cover it?


While I wait for you,
My lord, lost in this longing,
Suddenly there comes
A stirring of my window blind:
The autumn wind is blowing.


Mountain Lullabye (Anonymous)

"An example of a short choka with the 5-3-7 ending is provided by the following anonymous poem... This lovesong to a sacred mountain is considered by scholars to be an ancient Japanese lullabye. Ashibi is a plant with pendulous white blossom clusters known as andromeda in English."

The guarded mountain,
Mountain of the sacred grove --
Along the foot
Ashibi are flowering,
Along the top
Camellias are flowering,
What a lovely
Mountain is
The mountain guarded like a crying child.

* * *

Empress Jito (645-702)
(Succeeded emperor Temmu in 687)

Spring must be over,
Summer seems to have arrived:
White barken cloth
Garments are laid out to dry
On Heavenly Mount Kagu.

("From the Country of Eight Islands," ed. Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, 1981)

"Enough!" I say,
but Shii will force
her stories on me.
Lately, though, not hearing them,
I miss them.

"Enough!" I say
but "Go on, go on!"
is all I hear --
and now she claims
that Shii forces stories on her!

* * *

Poems by Mistress Fufuki (fl. ca. 676)

On seeing the crags on the long mountain flanks of Hata when Princess Tochi [daughter of Princess Nukata and Prince Oama] made a pilgrimage to Ise Shrine.

The thrusting, clustered
Boulders on the riverbank
Bear no trace of grace:
Forever young, I too would be
A maiden till the end of time.

Over the still pools --
Of Mano Bay they built a bridge,
Flanking it by day
And night with all her heart she yearns
My love, and comes in dreams.

Come to me always
Like the flower of the always-plant
Down by the river:
Always, always come, my love --
You'll never be out of season!

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